Students studying journalism at Jalalabat State University in Kyrgyzstan are getting a rare chance for practical experience as they put out an independent, weekly newspaper they are managing, editing, writing and designing. The students say they named their newspaper Kamerton, which evokes the waves of sound from striking a tuning fork, because they wanted the concerns of young people to be heard.
"We believe in the future, and that it is wide open," said Burulai Pusurmankulova, Kamerton’s deputy editor. "When we started our newspaper, we said we wanted to reflect the thoughts of young people. We also wanted to show older people that there are young people and they have their own problems."
IREX Europe’s Drusilla Menaker spent a week helping the editors develop their content, refine the layout, and plan for a student business manager to find advertising. The editors are determined to keep Kamerton going past the term of the small grant that has supported their first editions, although they will need further donor assistance to do so initially.
Newspapers put out by university students are a key route for aspiring journalists to acquire professional skills in many countries, and often play the same role of informing, entertaining, and promoting public discussion within the university setting as independent media do in the wider community. In Central Asia and many other regions in transition, however, publications run by and for students at a near-professional level are virtually unknown. Those enrolled at journalism faculties consistently complain that their studies are almost exclusively theoretical, presented by lecturers with no practical experience who have access only to outdated materials. They crave hands-on training that will give them access to international standards in journalism and current techniques for producing newspapers.
The idea for Kamerton developed during meetings of a young journalists club at the Jalalabat Media Resource Centre, opened by IREX with the support of the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The newspaper became a reality under a small grant awarded through the programme to Fergana, an independent regional newspaper that is mentoring the students.
Kamerton’s clear vision of its mission and connection with its audience would make it stand out among many of the "professional" newspapers in the region. The staff of 10 works after-hours at the heatless Fergana office, staying long into the night to get the publication prepared for the printer by the Thursday deadline. The media resource center provides access to the Internet and e-mail for research.
The journalists distribute the newspaper themselves, and were surprised to find that readers are willing to pay three soms for a copy - less than 10 cents but not insignificant in local terms. Kamerton’s independent voice has already attracted attention. Along with stories on romance, music, and celebrities, the first editions carried articles on the lack of Kyrgyz-language programmes on the national TV station, the practice of requiring students to pay for dormitories they say are uninhabitable, and how students should register for upcoming parliamentary elections. The editors were called before local authorities, an intimidating experience made all the more so because they attend a state-controlled university and depend on student stipends.
"We were writing with a patriotic sense," said Ms. Pusurmankulova, "We wanted to have on effect. We were motivated by trying to make the mistake understood so that it would be changed. They probably misunderstood our intentions."
The Kamerton team is mixed ethnically, with the newspaper produced in Kyrgyz with an Uzbek-language page each week. And the young women and men work have the opportunity to work together on equal terms. They say the experience allows them to make important choices about their future roles in this country where democratic and economic reforms incomplete.
"It is better to practice what you hear," said Gulbaira Mamadieva, a reporter. "We are not working for anyone but ourselves. We are not working under someone’s authority who says do this or do that. If this centre wasn’t here, I don’t think we would learn anything or reach this level."